Pa. Senate bill aims to give extra help to vets who get into trouble with the law

    The Senate Judiciary Committee meets on Wednesday, Jan. 29. Capital-Star photo by Elizabeth Hardison.

    The 25 Pennsylvania counties that run special treatment courts for military veterans may get a flood of new cases if a bill approved by a state Senate committee Wednesday becomes law. 

    Legislation sponsored by Sens. Mike Regan, R-York, and Doug Mastriano, R-Adams, would allow Pennsylvania’s veteran courts, which offer special adjudication and sentencing for military veterans, to take jurisdiction of cases from neighboring counties.

    Regan and Mastriano said the bill will improve treatment options for veterans facing criminal charges.

    “42 of our 67 counties don’t have veterans courts,” said Mastraino, a 30-year military veteran. “This provides an opportunity to open a door for veterans that wish to access [these] courts for the help they need.”

    His colleagues on the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously agreed, and sent the legislation to the full Senate Wednesday after approving minor, technical amendments. 

    Pennsylvania is home to 800,000 veterans, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. Untreated brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder have led veterans to be overrepresented in prison populations nationwide.

    Pennsylvania’s first veterans court was founded in Lackawanna County in 2009, according to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts. The model has since spread to 24 other counties, allowing veterans living with addiction or mental illness to receive treatment and support from the Veterans Administration if they’re charged or convicted of crimes. 

    The targeted court programs also allow veteran defendants to meet with specialized probation officers and veteran mentors. 

    The model closely resembles Pennsylvania’s specialized drug courts, which aim to divert defendants with drug addictions out of jail and into treatment. 

    In all, counties across Pennsylvania support almost a dozen different types of “problem solving” courts, including specialized units for juvenile drug abuse, domestic violence, and DUI offenses.

    Regan and Mastraino’s bill will allow those counties to establish “veterans tracks” — programs that incorporate some components of the veterans court, while relying on the infrastructure of other, pre-existing specialized courts.

    Regan said the legislation was spurred by a series of roundtable events he hosted last summer to discuss mental health and suicide prevention efforts for veterans.

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    Time and time again, Regan said, veterans and their advocates voiced support for specialized veterans courts. 

    He said Wednesday that veterans court participants — who can opt into the specialized courts voluntarily — have lower recidivism rates than defendants adjudicated in general courts.

    “Veterans come home with psychological problems from war, which can lead to criminal offenses,” Regan, who chairs the Senate’s Veterans Affairs Committee, said Wednesday. “We think it’s important they end up in a veterans court with a judge who is sympathetic to their plight.”